Talking Heads: Madi Ford, Senior Vice President & General Counsel, MidCity Financial

9 min read

Methods of Community Engagement  

Headquartered in Bethesda, MD, MidCity Financial Corporation was founded in 1965 by Eugene F. Ford, Sr., an engaged leader and community advocate with a visionary approach to delivering quality multifamily housing to support the diverse needs of local communities. He also founded Edgewood Management Corporation in 1973 to provide property management services to his portfolio and others. MidCity developed 15,000 units of predominately affordable housing and Edgewood’s portfolio has grown to 26,000 apartments across the country, primarily in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

The Ford Family Companies remain a family-owned, mission-driven suite of companies with Gene Ford, Jr. serving as chairman of each of the boards and his daughter, Madi, as senior vice president and general counsel at MidCity.

At the NH&RA Annual Meeting earlier this year, Madi Ford spoke of a Section 8 project in Washington, DC that was being blocked by one person. That convinced her team to hire an internal staff focused on community engagement to keep residents involved in development planning. This is taking NIMBYism head-on before it happens.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Ford to talk in greater detail about MidCity’s community engagement efforts, the company’s response to COVID-19 and its future priorities.

Tax Credit Advisor: What can you tell me about the origins of MidCity’s community engagement efforts and when it all started? 

Madi Ford: MidCity has been invested in the neighborhoods where our properties are located for decades. My grandfather acquired most of our properties in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many of these buildings are aging out of their useful life and need to be redeveloped. In many cases, the affordable provisions timed out because we fully paid off the mortgage or the use agreements have expired. At the same time, we are entering a period where development is contentious, especially in the District of Columbia. We have a shortage of housing—especially affordable housing —yet there are individuals who block development in the city for a host of reasons. It’s a perfect storm. Mayor Muriel Bowser has been very active in trying to promote affordable housing development and has pledged to build 12,000 units by 2025. It is a difficult task, given the cost of development and a litigious anti-development environment in the city, but the Mayor is still pushing and we appreciate that. NIMBYism is something every developer deals with and we believe that intentional engagement with stakeholders is key to moving projects forward.

TCA: Community engagement has become such a vital part of MidCity that you hired an internal staff  to coordinate these efforts. Who are these people? Are they affordable housing professionals, community leaders and activists, a little of both? 

MF: Dr. Robert Johns is our director of Community Engagement. He’s a career activist. We hired him from Community Preservation Development Corporation, a nonprofit real estate development company, where he had a similar role. He manages relationships with our nonprofit partners in areas of workforce development, violence interruption, food services, tutoring, digital literacyand other initiatives. He works with Stephanie Liotta-Atkinson, executive vice president, who manages our public engagement. Stephanie is an attorney who previously worked in development and government.

TCA: What is the primary function of the community engagement staff? Are they liaisons with your tenants or with neighborhood groups where you’re looking to develop?

MF: Their number one priority is our existing residents. Our team manages a robust suite of on-site social service offerings for our residents. For example, we have made significant donations to the Capital Area Food Bank, DC. Central Kitchen and So What Else, Inc. related to emergency meal services on our properties where residents are experiencing increased food insecurity as a result of Covid-19. Another great example would be Boolean Girl, a nonprofit organization that teaches computer coding to children at our Brookland Manor property. We also fund Boolean Girl to conduct classes at our in-bound elementary school, so that our students are engaged in an in-school computer club with a parallel club in our community center. We also have a strategic partnership with the Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School, which provides GED and career-readiness education to adult learners. Over the past 20 years, MidCity has contributed over $1 million to the school and more than 70 Brookland Manor residents have attended the academy. In 2019, this partnership was the winner of the Washington Business Journal’s Corporate Philanthropy Award.

In addition to resident services and strategic nonprofit partnerships, our community engagement team works with neighbors, residents, local commissions, council members and other stakeholders to hear and address their concerns and bring them to the table with us as a partner in transforming neighborhoods.

TCA: Are your development efforts mostly focused on rehabilitating existing properties, new construction or a little of both?

MF: Our projects are ground-up redevelopments, so they are new construction.  Many of these buildings are past their useful life. Very rarely do we acquire new assets. We do occasionally for strategic reasons. Last year, for example, we had some capital gains to use so we purchased a triangular lot right next to one of our projects in an Opportunity Zone play. The cost of land is very high in the District. Given the size of our existing asset base, it is unlikely that we will be a big player in the acquisition market.

TCA: How many community engagement staff do you employ?

MF: In addition to MidCity’s internal team, we are supported by on-site teams from Edgewood, our management arm, which can range in size from three people to 15 people based on the property and its size and the needs of the tenants. Our strategic partnerships with nonprofits give us a significant reach into the community as well.

TCA: While speaking at the NH&RA Annual Meeting, you touched on the importance of diversity. Please elaborate.

MF: Especially now, diversity is incredibly important. We underwent some training at MidCity to better understand that when we talk to a community group that is very often diverse in lots of different ways—socio-economically, ethnically, sexually—that instead of standing on a podium and talking at people, it’s better to sit in a circle, in a chair, talking with people and recognizing who you are in that process and making space for every voice to be heard. More than 85 percent of our employees identify as belonging to a minority group and 78 percent of our managers and supervisors identify as belonging to a minority group. We are very proud of our inclusive culture. However, we are very aware of the need to address issues of social and racial equity in our business and in our communities.

TCA: As part of your community engagement efforts, MidCity utilizes some of its undeveloped sites as temporary activations to promote community engagement. Please talk about these initiatives and why they were started. Do you have any other ideas that you’re considering?

MF: Our RIA parking lot is an excellent example of utilizing open space for community benefit. RIA refers to the redevelopment of our 20-acre property, Brookland Manor, into a mixed-income, mixed-use campus. On that surface parking lot, we have two murals. For the first mural, a local company worked with residents at our Brookland Manor property to create a design and then their resident children helped paint it. It’s very special and livens up the area. We have a second mural spanning the entire back portion of the RIA parking lot that was done in connection with the Tom’s End Gun Violence Now Movement. People from all over Maryland, DC and Virginia were invited to come and help paint the mural. There’s a lot of violent crime in the neighborhood where Brookland Manor is located. We felt it was very important to acknowledge the senseless loss of life. Unfortunately, this past weekend (June 6-7), a young man was killed not 20 feet from that second mural. We’re trying to raise awareness and use our properties as a platform for expressing that message. We have also engaged a nonprofit that provides community-driven violence interruption services to take a public health approach toward this problem. In addition to these activities, we host free cookouts, and an art-based maker space sponsored by the DC Public Library. We’re open to any ideas that bring people together in a way that is positive and connecting.

TCA: Have the communities that you engage with ever recommended a new service, or a change in existing service, that MidCity hadn’t thought of without their input?

MF: At some properties, services are offered based on what partners and resources are available in the area. At other properties, we have surveyed residents and designed programming to address articulated needs from within the community. We are constantly evaluating our offerings as our goal is to provide useful and well-utilized programming that is responsive to residents.

TCA: What are your priorities for the balance of 2020 and into 2021?

MF: 2020 has been a year of radical change. The health and safety of our employees and residents is really our top priority. In addition to that, a huge priority for me and the people I work with is to examine our diversity, equity and inclusion practices and making sure we are walking the walk and leading by example. We are close to rolling out some new initiatives to ensure we are being responsive to the issue of social justice. We are really focused on change and what’s going to create change. It’s about making everyone feel equal and comfortable, so that they have an opportunity for success.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.